I was born into the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (RLDS), both sides of my family being staunch believers in that faith. My father’s parents were Methodists converted by an RLDS missionary, Elder Hubert Case, who came to Oklahoma in 1907 just before my father was born. Daddy was named Hubert in his honor. Although both their families were horrified by the conversion and refused to hear anything about such “fraudulence,” my Swain grandparents always considered their conversion to be the greatest blessing that ever happened to them.
My mother’s family was an earlier vintage of converts arising from the Reorganization in 1860 of the church Joseph Smith had founded, or “restored,” as we believed, in 1830 in Palmyra, NY. (We weren’t “Protestant” because we rejected the Reformation, and we also rejected the common Protestant notion of “faith alone.”)
After the mob shooting of Smith in 1844, the church had splintered, many members following Brigham Young to Salt Lake, a few to the Great Lakes or to Texas. The rest bided their time until Joseph Smith, Jr., who had been blessed by his father before his death, grew up to succeed as “Prophet, Seer, and Revelator.” We were in this reorganized group.
We shared the Utah Mormons’ the belief that God revealed Himself not only through the Bible but also the Book of Mormon, an account of the inhabitants of the New World — Jewish in origin and visited by Christ after His Resurrection. These were, we believed, the “other sheep, not of this fold” (Jn 10:16) who would also hear His voice. (We also believed in a third testament of modern-day revelation, the Doctrine and Covenants.)
Smith claimed to be guided by an angel, Moroni, to a ringed set of gold plates buried in an Indian mound in Palmyra, NY. He then translated them with a crystal spectacle-type set of “Urum and Thumim” included with the plates.
Compared to the formerly polygamous Mormons in Utah, we were a small church (about 225,000, worldwide, in my time) headquartered in Independence, Mo., designated by the Prophet, before mobs drove his church out of Missouri, to be the “Center Place” where Zion would be built.
Growing up RLDS
During the Depression, Daddy’s family moved to cheap land in the deeply Southern Baptist territory of the Missouri Ozarks, scarce in young RLDS women. But he broke off his engagement to a Baptist lady when he met my nurse mother on a fortuitous medical visit to Independence.
I was born at home in Salem, Mo., where we attended, of necessity, the Christian Community Church. Our closest RLDS church was a remote place miles away in Reynolds County where they took me one Sunday to be blessed.
My folks wanted to be near the Center Place so, when I was a year old, Daddy moved his tire business to Lee’s Summit, twenty miles from Independence. We went to a fine RLDS congregation in the area where I learned my faith, attending church every Sunday from 9:30 a.m. to noon, evening service, choir practice, Wednesday prayer and testimony meetings, Bible School, Oriole Scouts, and Zion’s League youth group. Once a month on “Sacrament Sunday,” we had closed communion, kneeling for the consecration of both the elements. Adults fasted.
At eight, the “age of accountability,” I was baptized by full immersion, with the Trinitarian formula, in the font concealed under the platform behind the pulpit. Later that week two elders confirmed me, anointing my head with oil.
Now, I must confess that my heart was not really in what was happening. I dreaded getting dress-clinging wet right up there in front of everybody. In fact, knowing it was expected, I told my mother that I might as well “get it over with.”
My early spiritual life was hindered by the sense that my made-up prayers ended at the ceiling, that I lacked the faith of my devout family and our good church friends. I felt guilty and thought there was something wrong, even bad, about me.
Editing the Church
I was also embarrassed at having to recite, when asked my faith affiliation, the cumbersome name of my church. Also, reciting The Lord’s Prayer at public functions was a trial since we were obliged to cram in “Suffer us not to be led into temptation,” as we were taught by our “Inspired Version” of the Bible.
This version had been necessary, we believed, since many “plain and precious truths” had been removed from the Bible by the Catholic Church. Smith restored all of them — including a long account of Enoch’s city, given as a model of the Zion that we were to establish on earth in Independence.
Not only did he “restore” these passages, he altered others. One of the most noteworthy of these alterations was to 1 Timothy 3:15, about the Church (not Scripture) being the pillar and ground of truth. Unlike many Protestants, Smith noticed this verse and realized its implication about ultimate authority. So he amputated the last phrase of verse 15 and transplanted it to 16: “The pillar and ground of the truth is … God was manifest in the flesh, justified in the Spirit,” etc. Since Brigham Young never gained access to the Inspired Version (Emma Smith kept the manuscript hidden in giant pockets under her petticoats by day and under her pillow by night), we were unique in this particular alteration.
Partly because of such obstacles, I could never fathom much of basic Christian doctrine. That firm foundation was overshadowed by the Smith image and story. We completely ignored Matthew 16 about the gates of hell not prevailing against Christ’s Church. Subliminally we believed, in effect, that hell did prevail and that after Christ’s Ascension, the Church was indeed taken away into the wilderness of apostasy — only to be “restored” 1,800 years later through Joseph Smith.
Influences of traditional Christianity
Fortunately, along with our restoration hymns, I soaked up some solid Christianity through many of the others we sang. These were the marvelous 18th and 19th-century religious poems set to four-part hymn tunes, crafted by such masters as William Bradbury and Isaac Watts, plus two (unbeknownst to us) Catholic converts, (Fr.) Frederic Faber and (Cardinal) John Henry Newmann.
Our choir sang classical Christian compositions from Haydn to Steiner’s “God so loved the world.” In the fall, my tenor father traveled weekly with a carload of other singers to prepare for the church’s annual Christmas performance in Independence of Handel’s Messiah — our gift to the greater Kansas City area. It was held at full capacity in our 5,600-seat auditorium, supported by members of the Kansas City Philharmonic.
Along with my extended family, I knew much of the Messiah by heart and it was, though I didn’t realize it then, a source of joy, comfort, and nurture to me. While only vaguely aware of the significance of the Messianic prophesies made centuries before Christ’s birth, I was absorbing Isaiah, the Psalms, Job, Luke, Revelations, and the rest, through Handel’s heart-stopping music.
We were of necessity anti-Catholic and believed many falsehoods about the Church, but it bore a fascination that led me to check out a library book concerning, I think, nun saints. All I remember now is that, along with the story of St. Bernadette, there was a picture of her in her coffin. I assumed at the time it was a funeral photograph and it wasn’t until recently that I realized it to be a later picture of her incorrupt body. I was stunned by her beauty and showed it to a cousin who was equally fascinated. This planted a seed of interest in and curiosity about the saints that stuck in our minds and eventually helped lead to our conversions.
A similar influence in my life was the presence of my saintly mother. She was an RN, retired after marriage, continuing to home nurse all those in need around her. Since she knew absolutely no class or social distinction and never gossiped, people trusted her completely and came to her for help. She endured poor health while taking care of others, bearing her cross without the slightest air of martyrdom.
When I was three, my new little sister came down with pneumonia. Mother nursed her night and day with steam tent and croup kettle. One evening my parents summoned the elders to administer to her. This early memory of them placing their hands on her tiny body in her crib, anointing her with oil, and praying for her healing remained in my heart as a love for that sacrament (and a strong tie to my church) — which I found years later in Catholicism. (And, yes, my sister did recover.)
The “other half” of my journey
It is impossible to tell the story of my journey home without relating my husband’s pivotal story as well. We crossed paths during times of spiritual transition while interns at Napa State Hospital in California. After my graduation from the University of Kansas, where I had still attended church faithfully, I was fulfilling a music therapy internship.
Midway in my six-month tenure, Dick arrived from Seattle as a chaplain intern pursuing his credentials as a Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) supervisor. He was a 35-year-old Catholic priest who was quietly losing his faith and preparing to leave the Church. (This was 1965, just prior to the big post-Vatican II departure of priests and nuns.)
He’d been in psychotherapy before and after the death of his alcoholic mother. He had prayed for her from his troubled youth and into his priesthood, without the proviso, “Thy will be done,” that she would become like other mothers — faithful, reliable, and true. Psychotherapy and “the Self” eventually became his new gods. CPE, with its emphasis on “getting in touch with one’s feelings” and not having a “hidden agenda,” including religion, became his new path.
CPE was also quite attractive to me, and I was welcomed as an intern into Dick’s group the term after my own internship ended. It seemed a neat conjunction of religion and psychology that could solve some of my problems.
Another factor in Dick’s leaving the Faith was the influence of four years with a seminary Scripture professor who had taught the modernist Biblical criticism (that Pope Benedict has since so eloquently taken to task, particularly in Jesus of Nazareth), i.e., that one does not need faith to understand the Bible and that miracles are not necessarily so.
Dick had been a Catholic convert. He was a contemplative only child, aware of God in nature. In spite of his parents’ religious indifference, he’d read in the Bible that he should be baptized. His father consented to his becoming Episcopalian. Although Dick reluctantly agreed, when he went for instruction, he told the man that he really wanted to be Catholic. This desire arose from his being taken to Mass on the sly by his mother’s Aunt Frances, a remnant of their fallen-away Irish Catholic family, and being told by her that that was Jesus up there at the altar.
Then when Dick was homesick at the University of Washington, and troubled about both his mother and his ex-girl friend, both far away in Illinois, he had a vision of St. Joseph telling him to go see the priest at the Newman Center. Immediately Fr. Dooley stressed that Catholics believe the Blessed Sacrament is truly the Body of Christ. Dick received instruction and became Catholic, realizing also that he wanted to become a Dominican priest, like Fr. Dooley.
One could say, considering his recent conversion and his troubled background, that this might have been a premature vocation. In fact, the CPE path he chose when leaving the priesthood was based on a desire to help mental patients, particularly the criminally insane, the modern lepers of society — people, in some sense, like his fallen mother.
As it was, he had to scramble to elevate his indifferent grades and learn enough Latin to get by in seminary where lectures could be entirely in Latin. He loved his studies, chanting the Office, the daily routine of prayer, plus the bond with his Dominican friar brothers. After ordination, Dick was assigned to a Dominican parish in Seattle. Besides the usual duties, his pastor gave him pastoral care responsibilities with parolees, the mentally ill, and the parish Legion of Mary. With the help of vigorous young couples, he extended that chapter of the Legion into a service group for the infirm and elderly, enlisting surgeons, morticians, the St. Vincent de Paul Society, the Shriners, and even cab drivers in the interests of the needy and mentally ill.
The above could indicate he’d become a social activist in a collar, but he was still also a devoutly orthodox priest. The tipping point (but by no means the excuse) came when he was mistakenly accused of unorthodox teaching at an elite girls’ academy and was removed from that assignment along with a further implication of the removal of his faculties.
Partly because he was accustomed to the fond respect of the Dominicans, in awe of his diocesan accuser, and also disappointed with God over his mother’s alcoholic death, Dick was devastated. In spite of strong support by the parish and priory that helped keep him at his post, he was unable to sustain the blow.
He soon turned to CPE and came to Napa in 1965, still wearing the collar — the only Catholic in “a bunch of Protestants.”
Months later, when Dick confided the truth of his situation to me, we were good friends, turning to one another for support. Toward the end of the next quarter he went to see his Provincial to “resign” and we were married in a CPE wedding on the Feast of St. Joseph, 1966.
He said he’d rather drive a cab and be poor, so bitter he was — at least on one level. But although he threw away his collar, he always kept his breviary, his Douay Bible, and Thomas Aquinas’s Summa. He never in all the following years felt Protestant and he still privately called himself “Pius,” his name in the Order.
While advancing through supervisory training, Dick worked as a counselor at Napa County Mental Health and then at Parks Job Corps. He was soon accepted as a minister by the United Church of Christ and was thus able to be hired as Director of Chaplains at Fulton State Hospital in Missouri.
For twenty-seven years he served the full gamut of patients there, including those in maximum security. He supervised CPE programs for ten years.
Though we were happily married and had two children, Nathan and Sarah, these were also wilderness years for us. Much of that time we didn’t attend church, although Dick conducted three conventional services on Sundays at the hospital, alternating with the other chaplains.
I’d left my RLDS church while still in Napa after realizing that, “true” or not, it was wrong for me. In 1971 when I read Fawn Brodie’s biography of Joseph Smith, No Man Knows My History, I was dumbstruck to learn how much we’d all been duped. Even though I’d embraced the humanism of CPE, this was so disturbing that it made me suspect all of Christianity.
Furthermore, due to a “revelation” allowing the ordination of women, my church was going through a schism that split congregations and families, including my mother’s clan. Only five of my 38 cousins remained RLDS (now known as “The Community of Christ”), two are unreformed “Restorationists,” while most adopted some degree of personal New Age “spirituality.”
We never had our children baptized. I never taught them the Egermeier’s Bible stories mother read me as a child. We relied totally on our own efforts to rear them and handle all our problems.
This structure began to collapse with Dick’s realizations about CPE and its illusory connections to faith. Since most of the patients were not neurotic but psychotic and even criminally insane, getting them in touch with their feelings was a bad, dead-end idea he’d never really pursued. So he gave up CPE to spend full time with the patients.
After we moved two doors from the little local UCC Church (a former German Evangelical & Reformed parish), our children began attending. When, during a time of administrative duress, Dick began to suffer an acute need for God, we joined them. The Apostles’ Creed sounded odd to my RLDS ears, and we didn’t care for women as pastors, but we liked those staunch German descendants and the hymns they sang.
Seeking comfort in the Church
Meanwhile, my health, like mother’s before me, had begun deteriorating. I’d become a piano technician in ’81 and endured tremendous stress juggling home life and the demands, both physical and technical, of my job. During the first months, a tuning could take hours, and I’d worry about doing something wrong. In desperation, I began crossing myself before a job. I asked Dick to teach me the “Hail, Holy Queen.” (Although he was unaware of it, he’d been feeding me bits of such Catholic food for years.)
Now and then we visited old Catholic churches on trips and Dick knelt and prayed. In Park, KS, I lit a candle for the needs of our children. Further, he had always had cordial relationships with some local Catholics, the bishop, and the various part-time priests at the hospital. He’d remained in contact with a number of Dominicans and some old Legion of Mary couples.
In 1993, when Fr. Jack Fulton, his old Latin professor and later Provincial, came to visit, Father said, “My boy, get out your your breviary. We’re going to say the Office.” Father had always been praying for us and looking ahead. Before his death, his letter for Dick’s laicization said, “Pius still says his breviary — in Latin.” He’d made sure this was true — at least once, and it still is today.
When our UCC experience began to seem too limited, we shopped around, to no avail. Then Easter night, 1996, after we’d been again discussing our pressing great need for a faith, Dick went to a closet to unearth the old Roman Missal he’d rescued from the hospital after the last part-time priest left years before. He opened it to the beginning of the Mass with its facing woodcut of Christ on the cross and he was instantly transformed. He saw the entire panoply of the Church laid out in all its compelling, breath-taking beauty. And he said, “I’m going back.”
After making a 30-year confession, he began attending Mass alone while I stayed at home. Eighteen months later, my immune system crashed. Statistics were claiming that church attendees and those with a faith generally had happier lives and, specifically, better immune systems. I’d also been hearing from some Catholics that I could treat the sacraments as symbols. So I began attending Mass hoping, at no great price, that it would boost my immune system. (Many strange roads lead to Rome.)
Immediately, I was hit by the reverence, the focus on what was present in the sanctuary. And although I didn’t yet realize it, the suffering Savior, front and center, not an empty cross, made me welcome.
We sat in the back, but I was soon pressed into cantoring. A year later (’98) I began RCIA. Next Lent, the priest asked me to prepare to sing the Easter Proclamation — that long, glorious candle-lit chant, capsulizing the faith, recounting the necessity of Jesus, the payment of Adam’s debt, the Passover blood of the Lamb that anoints the doorposts of believers, the dryshod crossing of the Red Sea and the pillar of fire that banishes the darkness of sin: “This is the night!”
Strange as it may seem, although I had no problem with the Blessed Mother (for me she was a “clean slate”), Jesus was still difficult — particularly the entire Easter story. This was partly due to my old RLDS doctrine that had reduced Him to both liar and wimp, but it was also due to encounters with the humanistic degradation of Our Lord, rife in secularism, academia, and CPE.
In spite of the Messiah and the Bible, I’d never known Him as “God” by understanding the Trinity. Further, I was repelled by both the social-worker, hippie Jesus of the social justice crowd and the “In-the-Garden,” “You’n me” Jesus, of the evangelicals — so I had just dismissed Him. I hadn’t yet seen a connection to that sufferer up there on the cross.
When UCC sermons had joyfully enthused, “Friends, believe the Good News!”, while downplaying suffering, it had just annoyed me like a pep rally. I had no idea why I should sing Handel’s “I know that my Redeemer liveth” and mean it.
I feared revealing this muddle in my first confession, thinking it would be a sacrilege to receive the Eucharist in such a state of unbelief. So I consulted another priest and he told me not to worry — that I was like a child, unable as yet to fully comprehend, and Christ in the Blessed Sacrament would open my eyes to the Real Presence.
He was right. After coming into the Church and beginning to receive Communion in 1999, those false images faded away. I finally began understanding our Lord’s sacrifice and the solidity of the sacraments vs. mere shadowbox symbols; I was startled when I began to get along better with difficult people and to even ask their forgiveness when they found me difficult.
My immune system also recovered and although I continued to endure other health limitations, I could now see the value of suffering and the chance to “offer it up” for others. Also, aided by centuries of saint allies from all over the world, I at last knew my prayers didn’t “stop at the ceiling.” In particular, my patron, Maximilian Kolbe, the Saint of Auschwitz, helped ease the dread of my illnesses. He had ignored his own high tubercular temperatures to go out in the elements to anoint dying TB patients.
I think my religious background also enabled me to see how a false doctrine, however “small,” is like a leak that will eventually sink any size ship. The various barques I’d been on, or observed, were sinking through schism over Modernism and other “isms.” I now was assured that, even though the Church may again and again go through stormy seas, she is God’s solid barque.
Thanks be to God, the help of Father Fulton and the Dominicans, Dick’s application for laicization was approved by Rome in 1999. Our marriage could then be validated. Thus, he is returned to the lay state, with the proviso that he not act in the sanctuary or do any parish teaching. Instead, he prays for us all, often in front of the Blessed Sacrament. He is still a priest and so must anoint, baptize, and perform Last Rites when there is danger of death. Our priests have been glad to have someone handy in case they personally need him, as when one of them suffered an accident.
At a parish mission during the next Lent, Dick made a general confession. The priest, superior of a missionary order, was astounded at not only Pope John Paul II’s rare approval of a laicization, but also its speed. And when Dick told of his parents and grandmother coming into the Faith during his seminary days and of his later anointing his mother before she died, the priest told Dick, “Your priesthood saved your mother.” Dick had seen only her alcoholic death and had been blind to God’s grace in using him for her salvation.
During the trials of our later life and the rapid encroachment of secular Babylonia, we are ever more grateful for our journey home to the Church. We wonder how a soul with no faith can sustain the chaos of our harsh new world. For, in contrast to its sterile doctrine of “Diversity,” we have Christ’s universal Church, the Body of Christ, defining true diversity. We have the Communion of Saints, especially our Blessed Mother, the sacraments, and Christ Himself — Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity. We pray for the grace to remain faithful, in the words of the old hymn, “whate’er betide.”